Tag: Marcus Aurelius

The Three Disciplines of Stoicism: Life Lessons from a Roman Emperor

The stoics used their understanding of perception, action, and will to create an operating system for life.

The Three Disciplines

A common thread central to the philosophy of the meditations and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot in the Inner Cidital, are the three disciplines of perception, action, and will.

The first discipline is the discipline of perception. “[Perception] requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are,” writes Gregory Hays in the introduction to his new translation of Meditations.

The second discipline, action, deals with our relationships with others. We need, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “to live as nature requires.” The simplest way to understand this is to know that we were made for others, not ourselves. Nature is unselfish and we should be too. We should work towards something larger than ourselves, a collective good while treating people justly and fairly.

The third discipline, the discipline of will, encompasses our attitude to things that are not within our control. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, and even death, however unpleasant, can only harm us if we choose to see them that way. The same for the acts of others.

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Attitude is Everything

You may think that maintaining a positive attitude regardless of the circumstances is impossible. But it’s not.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, writes: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Individually the three disciplines contribute to a meaningful life. Yet when combined they “constitute a comprehensive approach to life,” Hays writes.

In Meditations 7.54, Marcus Aurelius lays the principles out for us.

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception];

The three disciplines appear throughout Meditations.

Some subtlety (as in Meditations 8.7):

… progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it-the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the trees.

And some more overtly (6.41)

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.”

The three disciplines are, in a sense, the heart of meditations. You can think of them as an operating system for life. Meditations is a book I wish I had discovered earlier. I anticipate reading and reflecting on it often.

Much of What You’re Going to Do or Say Today is Not Essential

If you’re a modern knowledge worker, odds are you’re going to go to work, read some emails, reply to some emails, attend some meetings, grab a coffee, have lunch, attend another meeting or two, catch up on emails, and finally head home. You’ll be busy from the moment you get to work until the moment you go home.

When you do find a nook of time, you’ll likely be bombarded with beeping, dings, calls, and other people who only need a sliver of our time. After all, they too have something urgent to do. They too, have a deadline. After a long day, you’ll come home mentally and physically drained. Eventually, you’ll reach a tipping point and say enough is enough.

The very next day, you’ll head into the office vowing to change things. You’ll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done the work to have an informed opinion on the matter, it matters that you go and make some token contribution to the meeting. The plan to work better flies out the window; any hope of sanity along with it.

If we can’t work smarter, we can work harder. So we end up redoubling our efforts, cutting out lunch and shortening meetings so we can fit more of them in.

Our response to finding ourselves stuck in the muck is to put our foot on the accelerator. Part of the problem is that attending meetings has become some sort of corporate-machoism badge.

“Hey, you want to grab a coffee to talk about that really cool project I’m working on? I’d love to pick your brain?”

“Sounds great. How’s three Wednesdays from now sound? … Yea, I know, I’m so busy.“

Sure we do more busywork, but we’re doing less real work. Real work happens when you come in early, stay late, or too often, both. That’s how we find quiet, uninterrupted time.

The paradox is that in an effort to do more, we end up doing less. When you find yourself in a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging. By failing to think about how we’re working, we only end up burning ourselves out.

There is another way to improve performance but it’s a bit unconventional: Eliminate the bullshit.

Stop doing the busy work and start spending your time adding value to yourself, your clients, your co-workers, and your friends.

Focus on what’s important and eliminate the rest.

Before doing anything, ask yourself, “is this necessary?” And if it’s not necessary, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

The idea comes from eminent stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

In Meditations, he writes:

[M]ost of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary.

Ok, that makes sense. So why don’t more people do this?

That’s a good question.

While there are many reasons, this one probably carries a lot of weight.

“Worldly wisdom,” writes John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

No one wants to be unconventional. No one wants to be different.

More people should follow the advice of Aurelius — It’s not that difficult, it’s common sense. It just looks difficult because it’s unconventional.

Marcus Aurelius on How to Act and Four Habits of Thought to Eliminate

Some advice from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a
Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and
patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight-not straightened.

Later he adds this bit of timeless wisdom:

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.

Four habits of thought to eliminate.

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them. Tell yourself:

* This thought is unnecessary.
* This one is destructive to the people around you.
* This wouldn’t be what you really think (to say what you don’t think—the definition of absurdity.)

And the fourth reason for self-reproach: that the more divine part of you has been beaten and subdued by the degraded mortal part—the body and its stupid self-indulgence.

The best way to read Meditations is not necessarily from start to finish. Another idea, is pair it with Montaigne’s How to Live and read random pages from one every few days.